Aside from the live action happening on the city streets during the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival, inside the nearby Birthplace of Country Music Museum was the exclusive Johnny Cash exhibit, 1968: A Folsom Redemption.
The walls of the long rectangular room lined with dozens of rarely seen photographs of Cash’s time at Folsom, from getting off the plane, to onstage shots and offstage shots aplenty. In addition were framed albums of his, an autographed guitar with Cash’s signature along with Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others, and a typed letter from Cash where he discusses his battle with overcoming drugs for his then new book, Man in Black (1976).
After a brief walkabout checking out photos of her father from the bygone era, Rosanne Cash lent some insight on him and his time at Folsom.
“I’m thrilled to be here, I really am. It’s really moving. Part of my bloodstream is Virginia and Tennessee, and here we are at the crux of that.” Cash discussed her familial roots within the bordering states, and how important is was for her to finally be there for the event, making it doubly special with the rich country music history in Bristol.
Cash mentioned the multiple levels of significance of both time and place, as her father’s passing would reach 19 years the following day.
Cash discussed her father’s trials and tribulations early on, stating, “In some ways he felt imprisoned by his own addictions, woundedness, and suffering, and a lot of that went into his music. That’s the gift of a great artist, is taking that suffering and making great art out of it, which he was fortunate enough to do.”
In regards to Folsom, she said, “He did feel the suffering of those prisoners, which is why he went back to perform at prisons so many times and was an activist in prison reform.” She went on to discuss the significance of artists being advocates for positive reform and change.
Cash was 13-years-old and in 8th grade when her dad performed his legendary concert at Folsom, and mentions remembering him going to California for a show, but at such an age not fully grasping the concept of it, as most at that age wouldn’t.
“It became so identifiable with my dad and just his image and who he was in the world, that it seemed like something that had always been a part of him.”
We got to ask Cash about any specific stories or memories her dad might’ve told her about his time there, to which she mentioned it being a jumping off point in he and Merle Haggard’s bond, as he was present that day. “The trajectory of their relationship and lifelong friendship [from that point on] was just really beautiful.”
After discussing a candid photograph of the two of them that she holds dear, she went on to say, “Of all the things that came out of Folsom, that may have been one of the most beautiful was that friendship.”
But there was one particular inmate and fellow songwriter who had a lasting impression on Cash. “I remember how deeply affected he was when Glen Sherley died and how painful the story of that man’s life was for him,” she added. During the Folsom performance, Sherley sat in the front row, unaware Cash would be playing one of his songs. He would die by suicide at age 42 in 1978.
“I don’t think people realize how he had to push against the record label to put this record out. They didn’t want to release an album live and in prison. There wasn’t much support when he had this idea. He stood his ground and said ‘this is an artistic statement I want to make.’ And of course he was right.”
The exhibit is an incredible homage to a crucial time in music history with one of music’s biggest names, and is of high recommendation for all Johnny Cash fans, as is the whole museum.
Rosanne Cash would go on to close out yet another successful Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival that Sunday night to an eager audience.
Featured photo by Billie Wheeler